4.48 Psychosis

First of all, I would like to say that (as you may have guessed from my previous posts) I am not a professional writer, reviewer, and nor do I regularly write theatre or performance reviews for university magazines…This post is purely my honest opinion as an audience member. I am sorry if my words offend or upset anyone, but it is what I honestly think having gone to the play. Freedom of speech and all that jazz right?

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis at the Crypt Gallery near Euston, London. I’m not sure if the theatre company was external to a university or not, but the cast mainly involved university students and graduates. I decided to go see this performance a week or two ago as I considered doing this for my A Level drama performance piece few years back and really really loved it. I have always been intrigued by psychology, mental illnesses, literature and performance arts, and because of these reasons, I was really excited and anticipated being swept away into the disillusioned world of Sarah Kane’s writing.

Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a raw and honest piece that details the torment, the hurricane of emotions, the horror and her journey through her suffering of multiple mental disorders as well as sexual desire and death. As anyone may have imagined, trying to interpret and present such a chaotic and complicated state of mind is definitely not easy; firstly, it requires an at least-basic understanding of the psychological disorders mentioned in the play, such as the symptoms and the cognitive and behavioural effects. Secondly, you have to interpret it and deliver this to the audience through multiple sensory channels – the acting, the set and type of staging, the music. But lastly, this needs to resonate and be understood by the audience. Or perhaps better put, you’d want them to successfully captivate them through a good use of all of these aforementioned elements. But to begin with, I can safely say that I did not like the performance I saw, and here is why.

Upon entering we were guided into the Crypt gallery and immersed in darkness. The opening monologue was delivered whilst we were finding our way through the installations that were hanging from the ceiling – these installations were something like balloons put into tights or fabric of the same type. There is no way of avoiding the hanging balloons upon entrance. Shortly after the monologue ended, we were asked to walk further into the gallery and to follow the voices of the actors into the different chambers/rooms throughout the play.

The pink, fleshy theme ran throughout the play: the costumes looked were flesh-coloured spheres wrapped around the actresses’ chest and back, akin to covering your private parts with balloon animals, only creepier…As well as the pink, fleshy theme, there were constant installations of bubble wrap, material that were made to look like massive slakes of skin and flesh (though not bloody!) and slightly see-through fabric that actresses would often stand within or behind. I must first say that these fabric-wrapped actresses were perhaps my favourite part of the whole performance but I didn’t like the costume. It was weird and unfitting in my opinion. I will explain the more generally feel of weirdness and eeriness in a second. This generally abstract set was pretty cool and interesting, but the risk and temptation of just making everything abstract is that it will be difficult for the audience to get what you want to do/say.

The use of the Crypt gallery was quite clever – Firstly, the gallery was dated, chilly and gave a feeling of unease. Secondly, by leading the audience member from chamber to chamber and by performing around the audience not only meant that the audience are most immersed within the experience but also provides dramatic effect. The set and accompanying music also enhanced this effect. ‘Manmade and atonal sounds’ would probably more aptly describe the heard element of the performance. Ensemble members played white noises, collided and struck mental strings and cymbals with a violin bow and actresses played pre-recorded tracks in some of the scenes, but these were purposefully discomforting, muffled and strange. To this effect, I think the production team and designers did very well. The way everything was set up and played shouted words like strange, disordered, eerie and crazy. HOWEVER, let me turn to the acting next.

I must interrupt myself here and say that I went to the performance with my friend and we came out with very similar opinions about the performance, although I imagine he is much more articulate in the way he may explain this experience to his friends. For instance this is one thing he said regarding the acting: “For a play that talks about psychosis, they offered no insight to her mental illness.” – I could not agree more. Especially as someone who studied about mental disorders, the company failed to present a woman who was not only suffering from multiple conditions, but was also tormented by those around her. However, the acting was not convincing at all. It is often tempting to just go for the shock factor and weird/creep the audience out when you are trying to act as someone who is mentally ill or if you are depicting a supernatural character but to be honest that is a pretty superficial way to go about it. Yes, looking at your audience intensely will probably make them feel uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean much past that. It does not mean that I, as an audience member, actually took in your interpretation of the mental state of the character, understood it or that your performance perpetuated the appropriate corresponding emotions because of it. This equally applies to reading lines dramatically.

Psychosis not only means a ‘loss of contact with reality’ but also hallucinations, delusional beliefs, violence and more. As I have mentioned several times throughout this post the playwright was suffering other disorders above this, and the product of this is that there are many clashing, violent emotions and feelings, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that constantly overpowers her mind. For a play that involves such a diversity of emotions, that presents to the world the fragility of the human mind and that is so provocative, the only emotion that came across was disgust. The play was shortly written before the playwright committed suicide; it was also her most fragmented works and there were no instructions as to how many actors or actresses were to play the different scenes and characters. Given this freedom of actor usage sometimes single characters were played by multiple actresses and multiple characters played by a single actress. The scene where Kane was talking to her psychiatrist is one such example. In this scene, the psychiatrist begins by stating that the relationship between them and the playwright is ‘professional’, but as the scene progresses it almost seems like the roles have swapped – the psychiatrist is pouring his/her angst, stress and desperation onto Kane. The problems I have with this scene are that 1. I had to actively work out what lines were said by the psychiatrist and what lines were said by Kane because all the lines just sounded dramatic but pretty much the same. 2. What I liked most about this scene was the irony, the fact that the psychiatrist seemed to be going crazy and more importantly was doing so in front of his patient. This was not portrayed at all in the scene.

Another thing was that even though in many instances in the play (and obviously because of the illnesses the playwright was suffering from), there was no clarity, consistency or order to her state of mind, her wants or desires. There are actually moments where Kane clearly displays that she has thought it through and was crystal clear about what she wanted – she wanted to die. Perhaps not because she thought death would resolve the problems, but because she just no longer desired to live. Life had nothing good to offer her.

I think I have rambled on long enough about this performance but mainly I just wanted to point out that: whilst using clever sets, music, props and lighting..etc. can really add theatrical effect to your production, you should not be overly reliant on these things to create your production. At the end of the day the acting still makes or breaks the performance. Not only did the acting not provide and interesting or informative into the world of the psychotic, the tormented and ill, but the emotions conveyed were narrow. Weird and dramatic is not the formula to a successful portrayal of a mental patient. In one sentence: the play was a delicately made multi-course meal and the cast ate it and threw it up then presented it to us in that form. Yes it was discomforting, weird and dramatic, but I also had to pick out and separate all of the different bits for myself.

One of the more enjoyable things from this experience was talking about it afterwards. Sarah Kane is actually very clever but none of that was portrayed. Her play was raw, intriguing and multifaceted but none of that was delivered. Too be fair, this is only my opinion, and the other audiences may have loved it. I can imagine other theatre-goers and hardcore dramatic and abstract theatre and drama students may well think this was a great depitction of the play but yeah. Sad times.

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